While the fourth quarter was strong for stocks and high-yield bonds, it was small consolation in a tough year. For the year, every S&P industry sector was down and eight of the ten experienced double-digit loss. It has been sixty years since the market has fallen three straight years, and 2002 was the worst single year since 1974.
In our opinion, there are a number of factors that contributed to the bear market, but without question the biggest was the stock market’s tech bubble. Terrorism and war fears didn’t help, but these only contributed at the margin to the magnitude and length of the bear market. Corporate shenanigans also hurt, but were not the driver—just another outgrowth of the environment of bubble-driven greed.
It is almost a tradition for investment professionals and the media to issue a forecast at the beginning of each year. But in any particular year there are many factors that play out differently than expected (e.g. Enron & Worldcom), and other potential issues that simply can’t be foreseen (e.g. 9/11). This makes accurate forecasting very difficult. Instead, to achieve long-term investment success we believe it is essential that we base our strategies only on analysis that we are highly confident in, not hope or speculation. This necessitates a relatively long-term time horizon, since we have a much higher level of confidence in our ability to assess long-term factors.
As we look out over the next five years we are optimistic and believe financial markets are likely to deliver decent returns relative to inflation. There remains a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines waiting to enter, corporate valuations are moderate, and interest rates and inflation are low. While we won’t be seeing anything like the 1990’s Bull for many years, we don’t expect to be visited by the Bear anytime soon either.